Roger McGough starts his autobiography with an apology. There will, he says, "be weaknesses in performance", including "overeagerness to please" and "nervous mannerisms too consciously affected". He is quoting from a letter he often reads at the start of a performance, in which he claims that he is unable to be present, but that an actor will impersonate him. It's a device designed to break the ice, but here it's clearly also an indication of a profound anxiety. Britain's "patron saint of poetry", as he was once dubbed, is terrified. "I have never fully resolved the conflict between the privacy of the poet and the public face of the performer", he confesses. You can't write an autobiography, however, without at least having a go.
McGough is not just one of Britain's most popular poets; he is also one of its most prolific. He has written more than 50 books for both adults and children, won numerous honours and awards, including a CBE, and has been hotly tipped as a future laureate. Throughout all this, he has maintained a modest, and entirely genuine, man-in-the-street demeanour. "My mates in the pub don't understand", he says, as he lists the exciting invitations he has recently turned down. This book is, in many ways, the literary equivalent of a conversation in the pub - chatty, colloquial and with the free-flowing structure of a man in full anecdotal flow.
The early memories are written with great charm: the beach where he chased a "red shiny beach ball" into a minefield, the toy cheese that gave him hours of pleasure, the old iron, a"black iron ship" which "sailed across the open sheets", and the gas rings on the stove, "out of which the blue tongues of dragons came kissing". The writing has the same deadpan tone as the poetry, but the flights of surrealist fancy which work so well in the poems are here more uncertain. His mother "reading bedtime stories by the light of a blazing factory" or "the faint strings of a harp" that accompanied the letter saying that he'd got a scholarship to the local grammar are both whimsical conceits that detract from the visceral intensity of the writing that surrounds them. They seem, in fact, like nervous tics.
The life itself, however, is fascinating. Fame first hit the shy Liverpudlian with his victory in the Litherland Baby Show. School followed, of course, a Catholic school where one of the Jesuit brothers introduces the facts of life to the young McGough with a note saying simply "the baby is a seed". It's only after he becomes a teacher himself that life as a Liverpool Poet kicks in, and the excitements of the city in the Sixties. Yes, he knew the Beatles. Paul McCartney's brother, Mike, was a member of The Scaffold, the pop group that had two No1 hits and brought McGough more fame and fortune than he would ever get as a poet. He also, it turned out, knew pretty much everyone else. Esther Rantzen, Stephen Frears and Ridley Scott were just some of the young assistants he encountered in those early days. As a lyricist, he was invited to do work for Cats, Pink Floyd and the US production of The Wind in the Willows, as well as for the film of Yellow Submarine. All this, on top of the endless round of readings at festivals around the world and in libraries and schools.
This is a warm-hearted book about the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man. He may choose to depict himself as Mr Ordinary, but there is nothing at all ordinary about his energy or talent.Reuse content